Maxine Williams

Global Head of Diversity

Location: Menlo Park, CA

"Whether it was when I auditioned for an improv comedy group at Yale, created my own major in Caribbean studies, won a Rhodes Scholarship, or started acting while studying law at Oxford University- the belief that effort and risk can lead to reward has never waned."

At the age of 16, I left my home on the island of Trinidad to navigate the immigrant landscape of America. I arrived with very little understanding of American cultural norms and no road map to success. However, I did come from a people who, through the pressures of slavery and indentureship, developed a faith in achieving the impossible along with a particularly high tolerance for risk. The adage that is often heard in Trinidad is “just try a ting!” In other words, assume no limit to your potential to overcome obstacles and give every challenge your best shot. Having finished high school in Trinidad, I applied to Yale University which was recommended to me as “a reach” school.

My interview with an alumni was held in the dead of winter. Being an island girl, I headed out in my best orange cotton skirt…neither cute nor practical. I could not have looked less like someone who “was a good fit” for a sophisticated Ivy League school. The gentleman who interviewed me asked the usual questions about why I wanted to attend Yale. Knowing next to nothing about the institution nor its offerings, my answers could not have inspired much confidence that I merited acceptance to such a place. At the end of the lackluster interview, I tried a ting. I asked a question in an effort to find common ground between us where none appeared to exist. "What do you do here? What does your company produce?” I asked. He said the building I had come to was a euthanasia research institute. I then mentioned that I found it a fascinating area and began a conversation with him about the ethics of intentionally ending life in order to relieve pain. Clearly this had nothing to do with Yale and everything to do with showing him that I did have broad interests and the ability to analyze information, form opinions, and debate respectfully.

My first letter from Yale stated that I was wait listed. A classmate explained that it meant they liked me but not as much as other people who they definitely wanted to have. I remember having two clear reactions. One was “but they don’t know me. So how can they make that determination?" And the other was "they didn't fully shut the door so there's still time to try a ting". I set out to get them to know me better. For context, this was early 1987, before the advent of the internet, cell phones or cheap methods of instant communication. I borrowed a video recorder and set it up on a tripod. Standing in front of the camera, I improvised an account, with humor, of who I was and of what a great addition I’d be to a school. I put the VHS tape in an envelope and mailed it off to the Yale admissions office.

I was accepted to Yale, had a phenomenal experience and kept trying tings throughout. Whether it was when I auditioned for an improv comedy group at Yale, created my own major in Caribbean studies, won a Rhodes Scholarship, or started acting while studying law at Oxford University-the belief that effort and risk can lead to reward has never waned.

Some years in to my professional life, I randomly met a woman who seemed to recognize my face. As we spoke, her light bulb went off and she said “oh my, you were that applicant who sent the video way back in 1987!” It turns out that she worked in the Yale Admissions office and at the time, it was highly unusual to have someone share themselves in that way. She said that they thought it was hilarious and gutsy. She also shared that my interviewer had written such a strong recommendation that prioritized my intellectual curiosity over cultural savvy that the balance swung in my favor for admission.

I can speak from experience when I say that it is never over until it is over and there’s no downside to “trying a ting,” or leaning in. Know yourself, give what you've got and it might just pay off.